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January 18, 2013

MORRIS: Carolina Coliseum was made for basketball

SOUTH CAROLINA staged a throwback night Thursday. The USC women’s team returned to Carolina Coliseum, treating a sparse yet vocal crowd to the old times, back when basketball games were played in basketball barns.

SOUTH CAROLINA staged a throwback night Thursday. The USC women’s team returned to Carolina Coliseum, treating a sparse yet vocal crowd to the old times, back when basketball games were played in basketball barns.

What makes an old building quaint and charming are its many quirks, the events that transpired there over the years and the mystique that hovers over it.

At least for one more night, fans were willing to overlook the cramped corridors, tiny portals and sparse concession stands. They came mostly to see if the building was still as loud as their parents claimed it to be, and it was. More important, they came to see a basketball game in a basketball arena.

Basketball is what distinguishes Carolina Coliseum from other newer arenas, including the 18,000-seat one that stands two blocks away. Carolina Coliseum was built to house the USC men’s basketball team.

Sure, it became a tremendous concert venue over the years with the likes of Elvis Presley, the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen performing there. The circus came to town every year. So, too, did the Ice Capades.

Even so, no one ever doubted that this place was built for Frank McGuire’s teams, which early on established themselves as being among the nation’s elite. Because of its terrific sight lines, made possible by a steep grade of seating, fans immediately gained a sense of being part of the action by sitting on top of it.

Atlantic Coast Conference opponents quickly recognized that playing a game at Carolina Coliseum was every bit as challenging as playing at the league’s other venerable old buildings — Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, North Carolina’s Carmichael Auditorium or N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum.

Fans attended the games at Carolina Coliseum to watch basketball. Over the early years of the building’s operation, attending men’s basketball games became Columbia’s biggest and most gala social event 17 or 18 times a year. The big USC athletics boosters loved being part of the noise from their seats at midcourt.

The game created all the excitement, unlike in today’s newer venues where crowds are implored to “Make Noise!” and where synthesized music blares at decibels so high the big-money boosters scurry to the comfort and quiet of their skyboxes.

Jack Easterby, now the team chaplain for the USC women’s team, was one of the fortunate ones growing up in Columbia who got to attend games at Carolina Coliseum with his father. “Section Q, Row R,” he remembers vividly. For the 1996-97 season, Easterby was the envy of his neighborhood friends when he served as ball boy and watched the games from beneath one of the baskets.

Like Easterby, those lucky enough to secure tickets remember all too well during the McGuire era how the Hall of Fame coach waited until seconds before the playing of the National Anthem to enter the arena. The pep band serenaded him with the fight song as McGuire — no one forgets this — tugged at his shirt cuffs and straightened his tie.

No other place in the country rolled out an actual red (OK, garnet) carpet, and used a single spotlight that shone from the rafters as the Gamecock starters were introduced and one-by-one strolled to midcourt. There was no need for manufactured excitement via a high-tech video. The exhilaration was all too real.

Once the official tossed the ball into the air to begin play, it was bedlam, an atmosphere jump-started by the first game played there. That is when John Roche, USC’s first superstar in any sport, sank a jump shot from the top of the key with 2 seconds remaining for a 51-49 victory against Auburn.

“I made a winning shot at the buzzer after missing all of my previous nine shots in the second half,” John Roche wrote Thursday via email from Denver, where he is an attorney. “This was a sign to me that Carolina Coliseum would be the home for better success and good fortune for the basketball program, which it was.”

Of course, not every game and every season featured dramatic endings to games and winning campaigns. What Carolina Coliseum did give to USC men’s and women’s teams over the 33 years of basketball was a decided homecourt advantage.

Many factors beyond raucous crowds contribute to a team’s success on a home court. But there is no denying that the building and its atmosphere was at least a contributing factor to the men’s and women’s teams combining to win 73.3 percent of their games played there. By comparison, the teams have won 67.2 percent of their games in 11 seasons at Colonial Life Arena.

A scheduling conflict Thursday allowed fans to experience the magic of the building — of course, USC won — one more time. For those who developed a relationship with the building decades ago, returning to Carolina Coliseum must have been the USC athletics equivalent to visiting the Parthenon in Greece, the Colosseum in Rome or Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

We can only hope that Thursday’s game was not the last to be played at the grand old arena. Let’s hope that USC administrators recognize the past by preventing Carolina Coliseum from meeting up with a wrecking ball.

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